March 27, 2008

Are stereotypes decreasing?

A correspondent asked if things are getting better in my field--if the stereotyping of Indians is decreasing. My answer is: not necessarily.

The question from DMarks:[A]s far as our other discussion of regression and the conservative backlash and all, hasn't the stereotype/mascot picture kept improving all the time? Despite Rush Limbaugh and sports hooligans?It may have gotten slightly better since I started studying Indians in 1990 and began my stereotype contest in 2000. But if 1990 is the starting point and there's some mythical point where stereotyping has ended, I'd say we're a lot closer to the beginning than to the end.

True, some mascots have been eliminated, but that's probably because liberal educators are in control of schools. I'm not sure there's been any movement against mascots among the masses. If we polled people on whether Chief Wahoo is offensive, for instance, the numbers might be the same as in 1990.

Look at some of things that have appeared recently: Apocalypto. Pathfinder. Comanche Moon. COWBOYS & INDIANS vol. 1. RIPCLAW PILOT SEASON. THE FOURTH HORSEMAN #1. OutKast's Grammy performance. The Zagar and Steve commercials. The Swedish documentary. Etc.

I could go on and on. These are literally, not figuratively, as bad as anything that appeared in the 1950s. Judging by these examples, we've made no progress since then.

Why is that? Since the conservative moment became ascendant in the 1980s, there's been a backlash against liberalism and multiculturalism. It's become somewhat acceptable to be racist. Witness Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Don Imus, George ("macaca") Allen, the reaction to 9/11, the reaction to Katrina, the Jena Six, etc. Sure, people are criticized when they make racist remarks. But they also feel free to make such remarks, and they get more support than they used to.


dmarks said...

You make a lot of good points. I guess one way to measure would be actual statistics: how many schools of any kind have Native mascots or team names (I would not count remaining ones that have acted like the Central Michigan University and its "Chippewas": see the exemplary way" they have handled it).

And, about Michael Richards, etc: even though he said it, I'm rather sure that the number of people who find his attitude acceptible keeps going down.

"But they also feel free to make such remarks, and they get more support than they used to."

Whether or not they have the freedom to make such remarks gets into free speech issues. But are they really getting more support over time? Is there a way to quantify it?

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
BUT -- but - but
Wouldn't the natural evolution of social matters have witnessed a NATURAL decline in Native stereotypes all on its own? Surely the efforts of this blog would have CONTRIBUTED to such a decline, but is it a major factor? writerfella would have to be shown a lot more proof than he has seen here. Suppose there were a blog that opposed Arctic ice. Global warming rapidly is decreasing the Arctic and Antarctic ice masses. Would that anti-Artic ice blog then be able to claim that its efforts caused the diminution? Just asking...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

The number of mascots is definitely decreasing, but I addressed that. The real question is whether support for mascots is decreasing even as the actual mascots disappear. I don't think it is. As we've seen, people are just as rabid for their mascots even when the mascots are gone.

Except for hate crimes, I don't know if our society tallies acts of racism or stereotyping. About all we could look at are polls on racial attitudes. I'm sure overt racism has declined, but stereotypes are more insidious. You have to be taught racism by the people around you, but you can pick up stereotypes from the media even if no one you know is racist.

Believing in the savage Indian is like believing in angels, UFOs, or Santa Claus. Have these beliefs declined with the advent of the Space Age and the Internet? I doubt it. Eliminating subtle stereotyping will take more work than eliminating blatant racism, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I'm all for quantifying the problem. I just don't know how. I refer to my Stereotype of the Month contest because that's one pseudo-quantitative measure. Judging by the contest, there's been no decline in stereotyping since 2000.

Rob said...

There's no particular reason why any irrational belief should decline "naturally." More people than ever believe in God and Jesus, for instance, and the only "evidence" for them is a 2,000-year-old storybook.

As we've seen in many debates, people love to hold onto their irrational beliefs. Examples include Indian mascots and other stereotypes, Columbus and the Pilgrims as our "founding fathers," and the color-blindness of American society.

In non-Native fields, we could point to creationism vs. evolution, Saddam's alleged connection to 9/11, or the myth of the GOP's fiscal responsibility. People believe what they want to believe whether it's true or not.

Rob said...

I make no claims that Newspaper Rock (or Blue Corn Comics, or PEACE PARTY) have contributed greatly to eliminating stereotypes. If my site were as popular as Yahoo, Drudge, or the Huffington Post, then I'd expect to have some effect. But I get only a fraction of the visitors at, which gets only a fraction of the visitors at the biggies.

Most teachers do their educating only a few people at a time. That's about all I aim for, too. But if I reach a dozen people, each of them reaches a dozen people, and so forth, my views may spread exponentially.

Fortunately, people learn more from the repetition of arguments than from their "brilliance." People will be finding, reading, and absorbing my thoughts for decades if not centuries to come. I trust they'll have a cumulative effect eventually.

Besides, I'm just one of tens of thousands of people addressing racism and stereotyping issues. Together we're having more of an effect than I ever could alone. Society is changing slowly because progressive people like us are coaxing it to.

Look at Obama's recent speech on race, for instance. He got people talking about the issues for a week or two. If Bush spoke out, Spielberg made a movie, or JK Rowling wrote a book about Indians, the effect would be huge.